Leon Dunkins Claxton, Sr.
Showman/ Producer/ Vaudeville Artist (1902-1967)
Dapper and sophisticated, Leon Dunkins Claxton Sr., was the first African-American to find great success and infamy in the outdoor entertainment industry.
Claxton reached the apex of his career with the triumph of Harlem in Havana and went onto enjoy a good deal of wealth and social distinction in spite of the immeasurable odds against which he contended as an uneducated, self-made, black entrepreneur.
Born in April 1902 to Overton (O.C.) and Maggie Claxton, members of a renowned vaudeville family in Memphis, TN, Leon’s father was the talented blues drummer who brought W.C. Handy to Memphis to start a band on Beale Street.
By the third grade, young Leon wanted to see things for himself and ran off to join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a water boy for the elephants. By age of 16, Claxton was a featured contortionist on Ringling Bros. Circus. As the Twenty’s roared, Leon was making a name for himself as a renowned Chicago vaudevillian.
By the 1930s, he started producing ‘colored’ productions including the famed Cotton Club Showboat, which Claxton produced for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1934. Claxton's reputation was untouchable in the production of quality shows that presented brown-skinned entertainers to a nation divided by segregation.
Claxton premiered his first sepia revue on Royal American Shows’ in 1935. The first venture of its kind, Claxton's revue, Harlem in Havana, rose to become the leading outdoor attraction in North America for nearly four consecutive decades.
Claxton married Gwendolyn Bates, in Saskatoon Canada in 1938. Leon and Gwen Claxton built the Claxton Manor Motel in 1965 and catered to top African American celebrities, top athletes and big name politicos of the time.
A distinguished noble member of Harram Temple 23 in Tampa, Winner of Tampa Citizen of the Year in 1959, Claxton was a great philanthropist and a pillar in the Tampa business community.
Through the Harlem in Havana Project, his life and entertainment legacy will not be forgotten.